The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) was favourite to win Azad Jammu and Kashmir elections. It won the polls in the valley for the first time with a simple majority. However, it failed to emulate the Pakistan Peoples Party and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, which made landslide victories when they were in power in the Centre.
Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) emerged as the single-largest party after bagging at least 25 out of 45 seats in the election. The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) came in second with 11 seats, while the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) got only six seats. The opposition parties have alleged rigging and announced a protest movement against the government, though they have no concrete evidence to prove it. While pre-poll rigging cannot be ruled out, the allegations of election fraud look unsubstantiated as the government in AJK was still being run by the PML-N which had itself appointed the Election Commission and its staff, when the election was held. According to analysts, the biggest surprise in the polls was not the comfortable victory of the PTI, but the drubbing of the PML-N, which is notorious for using money and state resources in elections.
It is a fact that there was no apparent rigging in the election but it was marred by violence and shameless allegations. Two PTI men were killed in a clash with PPP workers at a polling station in Kotli. Activists of the three mainstream political parties also attacked each other in other areas. The tone was set by ministers and leaders of the PPP and PML-N alike. PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto and PML-N Vice President Maryam Nawaz used foul language against Prime Minister Imran Khan. Then, Kashmir Affairs Minister Ali Amin Gandapur accused Maryam Nawaz of spending public money on her costly cosmetic surgeries and called PPP founder Zulfikar Ali Bhutto a traitor.
It was the failure of the Election Commission that it could not enforce its code of conduct. PTI ministers and PML-N and PPP leaders continued to flout the rules and used foul language against each other but it failed to stop them. There were also some cases of irregularities, but still the opposition will find it difficult to prove rigging.
It is unprecedented in Pakistan’s history that all the 261 independent candidates failed to win even a single seat in the election. It shows that voters in the area prefer political parties to individuals. Three former prime ministers of Azad Jammu and Kashmir, Raja Farooq Haider of the PML-N, Barrister Sultan Mahmood, now in the PTI, and Sardar Atiq of the Muslim Conference, also retained their seats.
The PML-N, the former ruling party in the Centre and local assembly, faced a humiliating defeat, as it lost the election in Punjab, its traditional stronghold. The party had also created a false impression, mainly through the media, that it would win the valley election and uproot the PTI from power in the Centre and Punjab after successive victories in by-polls.
The election also sharpened differences in the former ruling party. Two narratives are more visible in the party now. PML-N President Shehbaz Sharif chose to stay away from the campaign while Maryam Nawaz’s aggressive posture, particularly in the AJK context, proved counter-productive. The election result has also hit the PML-N’s position as the biggest party in Punjab. Its vote bank, which remained intact in by-polls, dwindled in the AJK polls as Kashmiris settled in the largest province of Pakistan voted for PTI candidates. The PML-N vote bank in Punjab largely remained intact because of internal differences in the PTI. The PML-N narrative could not work in AJK for a variety of reasons. Analysts say the party should not have used the anti-establishment narrative in AJK, which was difficult to sell to voters in the valley. It is being seen as a failure of the Nawaz-Maryam narrative, which could further dent the party’s vote bank in Punjab.
The PPP managed to win a fair number of seats in the election. Its leaders largely targeted Prime Minister Imran Khan and his party, while avoiding criticism of the establishment. It is a great achievement of the party that it bagged seats almost double than that of the PML-N. The PPP launched its campaign in an organised manner and much before other parties. Its choice of candidates was also better than other parties. It was the first party to name its candidates. According to government ministers, the PPP used resources of the Sindh government to woo voters and promised jobs to them in the province. On the other hand, a PTI minister was filmed distributing cash among people during the campaign.
Unlike PML-N and PPP leaders, Prime Minister Imran Khan used his narrative effectively in the election. He continued to target former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, especially his perceived links with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Reiterating his earlier commitment to Kashmiris, he twice assured them that Islamabad would grant them the right to live as an independent nation if they decided to do so even after acceding to Pakistan through a United Nations-sponsored plebiscite.
Though the margin of victory is not high, yet the result is a sigh of relief for Prime Minister Imran Khan and his party which suffered defeats in almost all by-elections in Pakistan. The defeat of PML-N candidates for Punjab seats in AJK polls has provided an opportunity to the ruling party to produce better results in the forthcoming local government elections and then general elections in 2023. The PTI can defeat the PML-N in Punjab in local and general elections but it will have to control inflation and create a large number of job opportunities for people.